Lawmakers halt Health Department rule to extend religious vaccine exemptions to childcare centers

By: - August 30, 2022 1:35 pm

The Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services (Photo by Eric Seidle/ For the Daily Montanan).

State lawmakers agreed Friday to temporarily prohibit the state from adopting an administrative rule that would allow children attending child and daycare centers to receive religious exemptions for vaccines.

Democrats and Republicans on the Children Families, Health and Human Services Interim Committee, which oversees the state health department, voted to postpone the proposal, albeit for different reasons.

The committee voted 9-1 in favor of an “informal objection” to the proposed rule, which bars the state from adopting the rule for six months from the date of proposal, in this case August 5.

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Along with extending religious exemptions to childcare centers, the rule would also remove requirements for staff at those centers to be vaccinated.

Republicans on the committee voiced concerns over the rule’s administrative factors and vague definitions.

“I think this is one more thing that does move the needle to more complicated … For instance … home care would have to have more complicated response policies and procedures, and it sounds like grandma would have a lot more paperwork,” said Rep. Dennis Lenz, R-Billings, referencing childcare centers that operate out of a person’s home.

And Rep. Jennifer Carlson, R-Manhattan, voiced concerns over the rule’s terminology.

“There are also terms in this rule package that are not defined in law, and they are not even defined in the rule,” she said.

At the same time, Rep. Ed Stafman, D-Bozeman and chair of the committee, took issue with the substance of the rule that would make it easier for children to get out of required vaccinations, citing the return of polio and measles in parts of the country.

“This religious exemption, which has essentially no accountability, so that anybody could say my religion is ‘I don’t like vaccines,’ and then exempt their kids,” he said. ” … This whole process is just a way for people to avoid vaccines and create public health problems.”

Carlson made a point to mention that her objections were not tied to the religious exemptions aspects of the rule.

“I hope that someday in this country … we can get to the point where we don’t believe it’s our job to adjudicate someone else’s religious belief,” she said.

One day prior to the committee’s informal objection, the Department of Public Health and Human Services heard public comment on the rule. In the hearing, the department said the new rule was necessary to bring childcare centers into compliance with Senate Bill 215, or the Religious Freedom Restoration Act passed last legislative session, and House Bill 702, which prohibited discrimination based on vaccination status. The department also said the relaxed regulations that come with the rule would help ease staffing burdens currently impacting childcare centers.

At that meeting, medical professionals showed up to object to the new rule, saying it would compromise vulnerable children to deadly viruses and make it harder for the state to prevent outbreaks of diseases like polio and measles.

In a statement, DPHHS said it was “disappointed” with the committee’s informal objection.

“It is well-recognized that a child care shortage exists in Montana, and this shortage continues to negatively affect parents’ ability to rejoin the workforce. One of the Department’s goals with these rules is to streamline the hiring process for child care providers to create more care slots across Montana,” the statement read. “The Department also remains concerned that the objection precludes it from revising rules to comply with the Montana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and will consider its options to mitigate any legal risk.”


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Keith Schubert
Keith Schubert

Keith Schubert is a reporter for the Daily Montanan. Keith was born and raised in Wisconsin and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2019. He has worked at the St.Paul Pioneer Press, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and most recently, the Asbury Park Press, covering everything from local craft fairs to crime and courts to municipal government to the Minnesota state legislature. In his free time, he enjoys cheering on Wisconsin sports teams and exploring small businesses. He can be reached by text or call at 406-475-2954 .